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Stateside with Rosalea: A Fine Tub O' Tuna

Trying to make sense of California's energy 'crisis' is like putting your hand in a bucket of eels. Just when you think you've got hold of something substantial to hang onto it slips away. So it was with the Governor's televised speech a month or so ago declaring he was going to take the electricity generating companies to task. Even as he spoke the electrons were running hot between PG&E's bank accounts and the accounts of its employees, giving them at least some of the much-delayed bonus they'd been promised. Next morning PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, effectively putting itself out of the state's reach.

It's nearly a year since the first stage two power alert started sounding warning bells. On that day, according to an Examiner editorial this week, "power generators, free to gouge in a deregulated system, hiked prices to more than six times their normal rate." Then the mini-heatwave passed, power plants that had been shut down for pre-summer maintenance came back on line, and the 2000 presidential election season came around. Just a few voices tried to sound the alarm that all was not well, but the biggest sideshow in town was the events in Florida and the US Supreme Court, so no one took much notice.

The natural gas portion of my PG&E bill has been steadily rising over the past year, as the gas prices consumers can be charged by utilities are not capped the way electricity prices are. The same 10 therms that cost me $6.56 last April cost me $11.48 this time around. Over winter, people who relied on gas to heat their homes were walloped with bills a couple of hundred dollars over what they were used to. The electricity portion of my April bill is a couple of dollars less than it was last year, reflecting lower usage and the protection that the Public Utilities Commission has given consumers. The difference between the 4c per kWh of April 2000 and the 10c per kWh this year in the 'electric energy charge' line of my bill has not been passed on to me.

From June 1 that's about to change because the California Public Utilities Commission has approved a rate increase, much to the anger of consumer protection groups. On the other hand, the Governor's plan for the state to buy energy and maybe even transmission lines also garners huge criticism, seen daily in the TV ads put on by the Coalition for a Secure Energy Future, which is anxious not to see the State of California go bankrupt as well.

It remains to be seen how much the new rates will garner for the utility companies because there is a mechanism called the baseline rate, which has been in existence since 1982, which the PUC will be using to court conservation by giving discounts to people who use less than their baseline amount. Since the baseline amount is calculated as a percentage of the "average residential users' consumption" it seems to me that the more the bigger users curtail their usage the smaller that average will become and people who currently fall below the baseline will suddenly find themselves over it.

Ah, me!! What a fine kettle of fish this is. But to be honest it hasn't impacted me much yet. The price of a washload at the coin-operated laundromat I go to went up from $1.25 to $1.50, but that reflects the coins it takes as much as any proportional adjustment to pay for the energy they use. Some restaurants have apparently put a PG&E surcharge on the bottom of their bills. The price of petrol will see further rises if refineries lose their exemption from rolling blackouts, because it takes days to get production back up and running again. That increased petrol cost will no doubt be passed on to consumers in the cost of goods.

As chance would have it I'm in rolling outage block 13 - the state is divided into 14 such blocks - so it wasn't until the last blackout of winter that my power went off for an hour or so and I was at work at the time. During the heatwave of the past week the outages only got up to block 2, so it will hopefully be a while before my turn rolls around again. Having blocks like this, scattered statewide, allows the utility companies to cut back demand in 100mW lots if the Independent Systems Operator determines that reductions are necessary to prevent collapse of the electric system. There is usually about 10 minutes warning, and this situation comes about if the demand rises and the buyers of electricity cannot get more juice at a price they're prepared to pay.

As erratic as it is, it's not like the situation I arrived to in England in October 1973, where the oil price shock and a lack of coal, caused by a strike, combined to have everyone working just 3 day weeks - those two commodities being the fuel for England's power generators. Computers - which in those days took up a whole room in an office, not just a corner of a desk - were considered essential services so they were allowed to use electricity. People operating them and their peripherals weren't considered essential, so punch-card operators like me bundled up warm and sat with a car battery beside us hooked up to caravan lights so we could see the input forms we were typing from.

Shops were lit by storm lanterns and everyone seemed positively to enjoy the situation since it was reminiscent of the war years and having to pull together in adversity. Not having had a world war conducted on its soil, the United States doesn't have that resourcefulness to fall back on but California, at least, has its inventiveness and a willingness to cut back that should see it through, if only the politicians could resist turning energy into the same shark-infested custard the presidential election turned into.

So here's some fun suggestions for lightening up the load. If the State of California is hell-bent on spending billions on averting further outages it should draw up a roster for whole families to go for 3-week vacations somewhere else over summer, paid for by the state on the condition that they have the power to their homes turned off while they're gone. Cruises and overseas trips would be the most reliable way to ensure the energy was truly saved.

Someone should invent a technology for watering the outside of buildings so that they are kept constantly cool by a thin film of recirculating water, which could be its own source of hydro-electric power to operate the pumps to get it up to the roof. The need for air-conditioning would then be substantially reduced, and people could shower on their way in and out the door - another saving of electricity AND water!

But mostly someone should question whether there really is an energy 'crisis' or just badly written software and database management practices implemented somewhere along the electricity generation, control, wholesaling and consumer chain in the past year. Remember Capital Coast Health? Remember INCIS? It COULD happen here.

Lea Barker
California
Sunday May 13, 2001

PS For the power addicts among you, you can listen to May 14th's meeting of the PUC at their website, www.cpuc.ca.gov

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